Digital Transformation in University Communications & Marketing

Social Connection Backgrounds


Events of the past seven months have leapfrogged consumer behaviors ahead 10 years. The digital laggards – people who were slow to embrace digital engagement, communication and shopping – have become relatively experienced practitioners. They learned quickly to go digital when that became the only way to stay connected and informed during the COVID-19 pandemic – as well as to do business, shop, donate, attend worship services and experience museums and theater in a remote, stay-at-home, socially distanced world.

It’s time for university communications practices to fully leap ahead into digital-first practices because too much is at risk. Institutional leaders and communicators in central and advancement offices must re-engage stakeholders (across the spectrum from enrollment to philanthropy) by redefining the value proposition for higher education for their colleges and universities – how they’ve adapted, how they will be different and how they will sustain quality in agile, hybrid and even virtual environments. While university communications and marketing offices have accelerated digital communications in recent months, for organizations of all shapes and sizes, there is no turning back. The behavior of their customers has changed.

The attached PDF describes The Napa Group’s approach for developing and implementing a digital-first strategy in colleges and universities as part of a comprehensive strategic communications program. It’s scalable to non-profit organizations of all sizes.

Here are three leading examples of reimagined digital-first approaches:

  • Rather than continue the traditional communications office, a public university foundation blended “advancement services” and development communications into a digital team of prospect and donor analytics specialists and communications staff. This allows them to engage with the right donors and alumni at the right time – strategically focused and with data-driven tools and practices.
  • A private doctoral university converted its separate communications and marketing offices into a single unit designed to coordinate outreach to prospective students, alumni and donors. Using digital technology, it created a system to capture and manage messaging that previously had been widely decentralized among schools and departments across campus.
  • A central university communications and marketing office in a public institution created an integrated approach with alumni and development, so that the sweep of the institution’s customers – internal and external – can be reached through a variety of digital-first tools and practices. This both streamlines communications activities and maintains “one view of the customer.”

Connecting with Constituents – One at a Time

Integrated digital communications is already common in business, most apparently in online shopping. As retail dramatically evolves, as workplaces change, as every industry recasts for short- and long-term operations, the digital experience will be at the core. You can’t have virtual without digital. What’s more, personalization and segmentation are expected, and they are made possible by heavy reliance on data analysis of customer behaviors and preferences and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software. The results combine digital tools with digital communications content and messages customized to users’ interests and desired means of connecting.

However, in higher education, marketing and communications programs traditionally have been practiced by different units across the institution. Despite professed appreciation for centralized messages and tools, power units within many institutions, incentivized and rewarded by growth, often resist coordinated efforts and exert control over their own marketing. Today’s colleges and universities, struggling with millions in lost revenue in 2020, would be well-served to implement efficient, platform-based operations relying on data analytics and sophisticated CRM systems. Some already are starting.

In an industry-wide study, Benchmarking Digital Engagement (2018), the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and mStoner conducted a survey of 16,721 global advancement offices to determine how their tools, practices and attitudes are evolving toward integrated, digitally enabled outreach and engagement with key stakeholders. A digitally savvy operation, according to that report:

  • Attempts to reach people where they are
  • Innovates in programming by using new approaches involving digital tools
  • Attempts to understand and track the loyalty of stakeholders
  • Relies on digital analytics in decision making
  • Emphasizes digital communications internally and with stakeholders
  • Operates from the perspective of a single institution rather than a siloed department
  • Empowers staff to experiment, innovate, community
  • Focuses on mobile experience for staff and stakeholders

Further, university advancement offices intent on fundraising often are faster to incorporate new thinking and programs from outside higher education. Some formerly private sector firms are bringing leading-edge business practices to alumni and prospect engagement, including one cloud-based platform that connects institutional data with insights about constituents from other resources across the internet. Other newer entrants are firms specializing in community engagement as the basis of innovation and better business.

Central communications and marketing offices will need to be in sync with alumni and development to strengthen relationship-building for the entire sweep of constituents. How each institution achieves this will require thoughtful planning, strategic thinking, redesign, retraining, priority setting and phased investment. The glue will be activating custom, unified but agile, enterprise-wide approaches to digital communications and marketing.

Platform Practices

In contrast to a vertical integrated organization, in which multiple units or functions operate in parallel, platform models are dynamic, integrated and driven by the customer experience. They map the customer journey across multiple interactions, potentially throughout their lifetimes. This impacts the entire organization with respect to key functions (such as sales, marketing, communications, information technology and analytics) as well as their alignment and governance.

While digital engagement with customers is often the reason that organizations consider a platform model, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, nor is it as simple as creating a single unit focused on digital. Digital becomes everyone’s job and it requires “new thinking” across every part of the organization. Rather, a comprehensive digital strategy is necessary to support the core strategic drivers of the business – and position the organization to respond to business opportunities and build the teams to respond with digital (and other) tools.

Questions include: Will the impact of digital be focused on overall IT integration? On systems and software that provide deeper analytics for product development and sales? On marketing and communications? On social media? On fundraising and alumni engagement? On whether our customers buy in a physical store or virtually online? On investments in video and other tools for customer connections?

Agile companies have more fluid structures in which day-to-day work is organized in smaller teams that cut across business lines and market segments. The old view of “dotted lines” begins to fade as talent and tools are reallocated according to the business need. Digital technologies facilitate a more customized tactical approach to customers as part of a larger strategy. From both IT and marketing/communications perspectives, it’s vital to understand the “whole customer” (the strategy) and what tools (the tactics) are most effective in engaging them.

The Higher Education Solution: The Communications and Marketing E-Platform

During these challenging times, it is important to take seriously the silver linings. Leveraging leading-edge digital practices will produce tangible results in the institution’s relationships with stakeholders, and lead to successful outcomes in key revenue-producing programs.

What are the critical elements of this contemporary communications and marketing function shaped by an e-platform?

  1. A core central team focused on all aspects of the customer experience – strategy, budgeting and planning, analytics and digital and offline tools
  2. A refocused brand and marketing mix for relevance to your customers and their changing preferences
  3. Redesigned functions, roles and organizational charts for central and decentralized staff, to structure collaboration among departments (communications, advancement, enrollment, etc.) and avoid duplication
  4. Retraining and “upskilling” – ensuring that all communications and marketing staff can operate effectively in a digital environment, guided by different capabilities for each job
  5. Delivery of services in an integrated, streamlined model that provides consistent quality (responsibilities, workflows and processes) and supported by clear governance
  6. Operational alignment around metrics for defining success

The New Communications and Marketing Hub

Whatever the mistakes of the past, or the resistance that confounded progress, the “platform approach” lays the runway for a reimagined, strategy-driven communications and marketing hub. Customers have already made the conversion to virtual engagement. At a minimum, they expect digital support of in-person engagement and a commitment to growing digital resources to reinforce ongoing relationships.

It’s in the hands of institutional communications and marketing strategists can lead their organizations to complete this realistic, forward-looking relationship journey.

Janis Johnson and Bill Walker


Additional Resources:

How Businesses Promote the Customer Experience

“In a world where physical and virtual environments are converging, companies need to meet customer needs anytime, anywhere.” (McKinsey & Company, “Digitizing the consumer decision journey,” 2014)

  • “Companies need to make strategic decisions about the best pathways to build customer value…Companies that ultimately succeed in omnichannel marketing and sales will likely resemble tech companies and, interestingly, publishers – effectively using big data and digital touchpoints to drive growth and reduce costs, while producing and managing a variety of content.” [From the above 2014 McKinsey analysis of banking, retail and other sectors moving to cross-channel customer experiences)
  • Disney’s “Compass Model” uses the points of a compass to understand customer needs and satisfaction – north (needs or what the customer desires), west (wants or an underlying objective or purpose), south (preconceived notions, positive or negative, about the experience and east (emotions customers have or are likely to experience). Such an approach drives thinking at Amazon, Lyft, Uber and even a major U.S. airport redesign. (McKinsey, “Developing a customer-experience vision,” March 2016)
  • That’s why in many companies, the CIO (Chief Information Officer) and CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) are strategic partners working together. They are both responsible for turning the “big data” and other analytics into insights, profits and growth. In large organizations, from corporations to universities, these two positions often serve on the senior leadership team; in smaller organizations, with size restrictions on talent, similar results are delivered through customer-experience teams defined by clear strategy, decision governance, genuine collaboration and transparency. This means assuring that the leader of the unit managing these teams has a sufficient understanding of IT, analytics and marketing skills to advance the business goals and ensure that the client (whether an internal sales manager or development officer, or an external consumer or donor) has the best-fit response. (McKinsey, “Getting the CMO and CIO to work as partners,” August 2014)
  • Yet another emerging role is the CDO (Chief Digital Officer). Organizations applying this approach are focusing on achieving results in a digital world while understanding that digital is no longer something distinct. Rather it extends across the enterprise’s value chain incorporating marketing, customer experience, production, supply chain and service operations. Certain practices help organizations better execute on their digital strategies, including “digital hubs” and small teams of employees across functions and strategic roadmaps for digital results led by executive leadership that sets the priorities (PwC, “Digital operating models: How leading companies achieve results in the digital world,” 2016.)
  •  In a survey of 1000 companies worldwide in 2018, Bain & Company found just 5% of companies involved in digital transformation reported that they achieved or exceeded expectations they had set for themselves – and a full 71% settled for dilution of value and mediocre performance. Those making the transition successfully defined operating models in five key areas – structure, accountabilities, governance, capabilities and ways of working and collaboration. (“Bain & Company, Organizing for a Digital World,” 2018.)

COVID-19 as a Digital Accelerator

“If there were any lingering doubts about the necessity of digital transformation to business longevity, the coronavirus has silenced them. In a contactless world, the vast majority of interactions with customers and employees must take place virtually. With rare exception, operating digitally is the only way to stay in business through mandated shutdowns and restricted activity. It’s go digital, or go dark.”  Among the advantages of a digital paradigm are efficiency, productivity, agility and data-driven customer insights. (BDO, “Digital Transformation in the Pandemic and Post-Pandemic Era, May 2020)

  • In an April 2020 report, McKinsey & Company reminds us that “A digital future lies ahead. By acting early and being bold and decisive, CEOs can accelerate their digital transformation and reach the next normal sooner.” The report encourages CEOs to ask five questions in response to the COVID crisis and accelerate the shift to digital: (1) Do you have a clear view of where the value is going to be and a clear road map that will get you there? (2) What role should business building have in helping you accelerate your entrance into new markets or access new customers? (3) How can you lock in the benefits of a more agile operating model to increase the metabolic rate of your business? (4) How should you rethink your talent strategy so that you have the people you need when the recovery starts? (5) What investments are the most necessary to create the technology environment that will allow your company to thrive in the next normal? (McKinsey, “The Digital-Led Recovery from COVID-19: Five Questions for CEOs, April 2020)

Other Reading:

“How to build, organize and run a customer experience team,” Sitecore

“A Radical Redesign for Support Functions in the Digital Age,” Boston Consulting Group, Feb. 26, 2019

“Linking the customer experience to value,” McKinsey & Company, March 2016

“Reimagining Marketing in the Next Normal, McKinsey & Company, July 2020

“The Elements of the Platform Organization,” Simone Cicero, Platform Design Toolkit, May 12, 2017

“Designing the Organization for Digital,” Jason Baumgarten, SpencerStuart, January 2014

“Platform Business Models: Keys to Governing New Organization Designs,” by Reed Deshler, SHRM Executive Network, June 5, 2017